Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Systems Thinking and Social Network Analysis

I'm looking forward to diving into my growing stack of books and articles on social networks. For example, see Stephen Borgatti and Pacey Foster's Review and Typology of The Network Paradigm in Organizational Research.

Before I take that plunge, however, I'm still absorbing my first reading of Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline, which I discussed in a recent post.

I am stuck by the similar themes of these authors. Borgatti and Foster survey the current boom in network research and see it as "part of a general shift... toward more relational, contextual, and systemic understandings." Meanwhile, Senge describes the goal of his book as "destroying the illusion that the world is created of separate, unrelated forces" so that we can then build "learning organizations."

Though they start with similar goals, Senge and social network analysts approach organizations with a dramatically different set of tools. Broadly speaking, Senge's toolbox includes

(1) Systems thinking,
(2) Personal mastery,
(3) Mental models,
(4) Building shared vision, and
(5) Team learning.

Within this framework, social networks lie closest to systems thinking, which Senge describes as "a conceptual framework, a body of knowledge, and tools that have been developed to make full patterns clearer, and to help us see how to change them more effectively." As he elaborates on systems thinking, Senge even draws networks (or flow charts) to explain the "systems archetypes" that are the building blocks of organizational behavior. But the ingredients of his networks lie in a completely different dimension than individual people and pairwise relationships of SNA. The nodes of Senge's networks are not people but concepts like "Success," "Problem," and "Results."

Senge's book is powerful and persuasive. It will stay with me throughout my social network research, challenging me to consider both the strengths and the limitations of social networks in describing organizational behavior.




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